|NEGOTIATING THE MOMBASA MIDDAY INFERNO in a small minibus with no air-conditioning, we ramp up into a small car ferry where countless people pack into narrow steel walkways either side of the car deck. In a moment of overheated panic I spring out and start to mix in with the crowd on the rapidly filling ferry.
People begging in rags, people going to work in shirt and tie with briefcase and mothers breast-feeding their babies on the move. It was an absorbing first impression of Kenya.
A freezing towel greets you at the Safari Beach Hotel, Diani, south of Mombasa, and you begin the tuning-in process. Forms are completed and official talks given, but your eyes are fixed on the white-sand beach and sea just beyond the lobby.
Still in a post-flight daze, I walk past the swimming pool lined with beautiful people and along the perfectly kept lawns to the beach. Small squads of salesmen intercept you at the exact point at which it is too far to sprint back to the safety of the hotel and too far from the sea to lunge for the safety of the water.
We were to dive from south to north of the Kenyan coast, hosted by the Big Four dive operations, as they call themselves. Their intention is to form a Best Of Kenya-type co-operative in an effort to bring the image of Kenyan diving (hitherto apparently a little suspect) up to required standards.
Briefings are full and precise, with clear diagrams and charts. You get the feeling that safety is a high priority.
A recompression chamber is 20 minutes away, we are told, and a small private hospital five minutes away. Equipment is renewed every two years and the dayboats, though a little small, are pretty new and fast.
The diving starts well at Diani on the mfv Alpha Funguo, a 45m tuna-fishing vessel bought and sunk deliberately for recreational diving.
It is intact, sitting upright in 30m at its deepest, and can be entered at certain points such as the wheelhouse. Batfish patrol the bow and a portly scorpionfish sits midships for the camera.
We explore Khonda Reef later that day but, a hawksbill turtle sighting apart, the visibility defeats me on this occasion.
Travelling south to Shimoni on the southernmost point of the Kenyan coast, we board a dhow run by Pilli Pipa Dolphin Safari and skippered by the owner, Sharm. Diving off a dhow is an experience for the diver who wants to try everything but its charm is outweighed for me by the cramped space available for changing divers. The rolling motion is also a factor to consider. Quite a few of my dive-hardened friends are soon feeling a little bilious during our two-tank trip.
There are clearly good reefs at Pink Reef and Nyuli, but again the visibility proves a problem. On surfacing, however, we are met by the heartening sight of a pod of dolphins skimming the waves only metres away.
The nearby island of Wasini is a sight for sore eyes. At a beautiful restaurant perched at the top of a small cliff overlooking the Wasini Peninsula, girls in colourful local dress bring us a sumptuous lunch that is accompanied by dancing and song.
We make a night crossing to Chale Island, where you can choose to stay in spacious apartments or in tents that cater for your creature comforts in every way except for air-con.
The morning confirms that Chale is a very lovely place. Monkeys cram the trees and toucans fill the skies. A little sandy cove flanked by short cliffs left and right leads to our waiting dive boats and to the most memorable dive of my life.
We are told that whale sharks are in the area. This is guaranteed to raise the pulse rate but it is easy to be sceptical about what all too often turns out to be a no-show.
After an uneventful first dive on which we suffer once again from bad visibility, I haul myself wearily back on board. I have forgotten about whale sharks, and my head is hanging. Then it lifts, as I realise that we are surrounded by whale sharks.
One large, dark shadow passes a few metres from the hull of our boat, followed by a second, then a third, fourth and fifth. Then different groups, perhaps 20m apart, come to investigate us. Its a staggering moment as the realisation sinks in: is my 22-year drought of not being able to see, let alone photograph, a whale shark about to end
Our skipper works hard to drop the astounded divers in his charge into the water ahead of the graceful beasts. Twice for me this ends in failure. and my frustration is starting to get the better of me. So close and yet so far, I keep thinking.
The third time, we agree to try a different approach. I hold onto a rung of the side-ladder with demand valve in mouth as the diveboat heads towards the last remaining pod of whale sharks. I can see nothing as the water crests over the top of my head, buffeting my body. My arms are aching from holding on with all my might and my body is dragged helplessly behind like some old rag-doll.
Then the motion comes to an abrupt halt and my camera is handed down.
I rise as high out of the water as possible to get a view and those on board help by pointing the direction. Its now or never.
I empty the contents of my BC and slide down to a comfortable depth of about 5m. The whale shark heading in my direction is huge and cresting the surface. I start to feel lucky. Then it veers away from me. To get a good picture under water, it is imperative that I get in close.
I fin with all my remaining strength to intercept it, and miraculously the whale shark changes course and turns towards me, with an Im giving you a break, son look in its eye. Suddenly we are side by side, almost within touching distance.
I am able to photograph to my hearts content, shooting from every angle I can think of. I am so close that I have to back off several times.
I am finning at full tilt to choose my angles, moving down to include more sun, moving up to include more blue water. Then my film runs out, my body quickly follows suit, and my little adventure comes to an end as fast as it had began.
We are soon heading north again, back to Mombasa and the Voyager Beach Hotel at Nyali. It is modelled on a ship, with the general manager as captain and presumably everyone down to the porters with diminishing corresponding naval ranks.
The hotel nestles on Nyali beach and has a polished air about it. The apartments are clean, air-conditioned and mod-conned. In the evening on the way to the open-air buffet there is a badly lit pond (you have been warned) where frogs provide a loud and enthusiastic accompaniment to the live entertainment.
Bruce Phillips at Buccaneer Diving runs the diving operation and his reception is next to the hotel pool fringed by palm trees, only a few steps from the beach. The whole place reminds me of Thunderbirds Tracy Island.
Bruces pride and joy is a wreck called the Dania, a 250ft cattle transport ship sunk at 30m about a year ago for divers. Depths of 12 to 30m are achievable, with the shallower diveable structures including the bridge, hull and massive upper deck.
The bow section, locker-rooms, storage compartment and upper cattle-pens at 16m can be penetrated either horizontally, through openings cut into the side of the vessel, or vertically through holes cut into the deck. Deeper dives include the engine-room, for advanced divers only, and a vertical dive directly down the funnel to the engine-room.
We descend directly to the stern at 30m and gravitate immediately to the impressive 3m propeller. Then we fin up to about 25m and enter the stern through a hatch on the rear deck.
Vast shoals of glassfish meet us once inside the rear cabin, which is policed by a huge wrasse.
Proceeding through the cabins, you are aware of their size and spaciousness. Small round portholes and an open hatch allow enough light in to see by.
Ascending to about midships in view of the bridge, we make our way back to the shotline. The old problem of bad visibility has returned to haunt us on this dive but I have to recommend this wreck, which deserves more than the single dive for which we had time.
Our second dive at Nyali, on Shark Reef in Mombasa Marine Park, is made notable by the total absence of sharks, although extended appearances by a superb leopard moray eel and an octopus brighten an otherwise uneventful dive.
A long drive north to Watamu brings us to Steve Curtiss Aquaventure, an old-school BSAC dive school.
Steve is ex-army and no-nonsense; his briefings given with military precision, and I have no problem with that. Perhaps my hardman BSAC training is finally showing through.
The reefs would be lovely if only I could see them better. Having said that, Antheas Reef and the Canyon provide picturesque-enough dives in an end of the trip, not much energy left kind of way.
Scorpionfish sit obligingly, octopuses reveal themselves on cue and it is clear that the topography of the north differs from that of the south, with great underwater rock formations and channels. The sea temperature is 3-4C lower, too.
By the end of the week a lot of diverse diving has been packed into a few dives. Visibility has been down about half the time but on balance the commendable Best Of Kenya experiment has worked.
However there is to be one final experience for divers who need to spend a day or so out of the water and out of an aircraft. Satao Camp Safari game reserve is far larger than Masai Mara reserve further west, and a few hours drive from the east coast.
Our lodgings are canvas tents (the fabulous kind with their own bathroom and shower, think of an 80s TV soap ad). The fronts open onto views of waterholes where 40 or more elephants lounge throughout the day.
Safari trips are run into the bush and we see everything from lions to giraffes. In the evening after dinner, a small fire is lit and impalas roam the fenceless camp. This naturally means that more dangerous animals are free to do the same, but safety is taken seriously and your personal guard escorts you around after sundown.
It is a complete experience you buy into when you travel to Kenya. Its an adventure in every sense.
|Batfish on the Alpha Funguo wreck at Diani. |
|Scorpionfish at the Canyon, Watamu |
|A diver samples the Canyon at Watamu |
|a hippo shows off its snazzy new wig at the Crocodile Farm, Watamu |
|elephants get together near the Satao safari camp |
|lions at the Tsavo East National Reserve |
|the impressive screw on the Dania at Nyali |
|view of the Funguo at Diani |
|diver with glassfish at Shark Point |
GETTING THERE: Zac Macaulay flew with Kenya Airways from Heathrow to Nairobi and took a connecting flight to Mombasa. The transfer to Diani is by minibus.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION : Safari Beach Hotel, Diani, diving with Diving the Crab (email@example.com) here and in Chale Island; Dolphin Safaris Pilli Pipa (firstname.lastname@example.org for Wasini Island; Voyager Beach Hotel at Nyali Beach Mombasa, diving with Buccaneer Diving (email@example.com); Aquaventures at Watamu (firstname.lastname@example.org); Southern Cross Safaris at Tsavo (email@example.com).
WHEN TO GO: This trip started in late February. High season is September-April, but best time for whale sharks is December-February. Water temperature varies from 25-30C. A 3mm shortie is OK but at Watamu a 5mm full-length suit is advisable.
MONEY:Kenyan shillings or US dollars.
COST: A 10-day trip based on two sharing half-board accommodation is around£700, including two dives a day, one night full board on safari at Tsavo East, transfers and the optional Chale Island tour (where Zac saw the whale sharks). Flights to Mombasa cost between£350-800 depending on airline. Tour operators able to arrange packages are Dive Worldwide (01794 389 372), Aquatours (0870 442 3288), Crusader (020 8744 0474) or Dive Tours (01244 401177).
FURTHER INFORMATION: Kenya Tourist Board, 020 7202 6373, www.magicalkenya.com or www.divinginkenya.com
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